More than 5,000 cases of mumps were reported in the U.S. in 2016 – nearly three times the number reported the previous year and the most since a large multi-state outbreak in 2006. Many of the cases were at college campuses.
Why did so many adults get a vaccine-preventable childhood illness?
Most likely because the vaccine becomes less effective over time, said Dr. Matthew Hall, a Marshfield Clinic infectious disease specialist. However, it’s still important to be fully vaccinated against mumps because declining vaccination rates contribute to more illness.
Here’s what you should know about mumps.
Mild illness with rare, serious complications
Mumps is a contagious disease known for puffy cheeks caused by swollen salivary glands. Fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue also are common symptoms.
“Atypical presentation without swollen salivary glands can make it difficult to determine what illness people have,” Hall said. “On the other hand, influenza and other illnesses can cause swollen salivary glands and look like mumps.”
Mumps isn’t serious for most people. Over-the-counter pain relievers, rest, plenty of fluids and a diet of foods that aren’t hard to chew can relieve symptoms and make you more comfortable while you’re sick. The infection usually runs its course in two or three weeks.
However, mumps occasionally causes serious complications, including hearing loss and inflammation in the following areas:
- Membranes around the spinal cord and brain (meningitis)
- Brain (encephalitis)
- Pancreas (pancreatitis)
- Ovaries (oophoritis)
- Testicles (orchitis)
Seek medical care if you have symptoms of mumps and experience severe headaches, belly pain, nausea, pelvic pain or testicular pain.
Mumps is preventable through vaccines
Vaccination can prevent mumps. Children are vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella at the same time. The first MMR dose is given at 12-15 months and the second at 4-6 years old.
“The vaccine is safe and about 90 percent effective against mumps for someone who gets both doses,” Hall said.
The vaccine becomes less effective over time
Mumps is considered a childhood illness, but recent outbreaks in the U.S. have affected college campuses.
“The vaccine’s effectiveness wanes over time,” Hall said. “Mumps isn’t common in young children because they’re newly vaccinated. By the time someone reaches college, the effects of the vaccine have started to wear off.”
Close living quarters in college dorms create ideal conditions for mumps to spread. The virus is transmitted through saliva or mucus in the nose and mouth. Coughing, sneezing and sharing cups or utensils can spread mumps.
Mumps outbreaks on college campuses have called for some universities to recommend a third dose of the vaccine.
Adults who didn’t receive both doses during childhood should talk to their doctor about completing the series.